Monday 5 September 2011

Time for the storytellers

The Faith Machine, Royal Court, London

Though absolutely attached to the offstage world, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s latest reaches beyond mere topicality. It is concerned not with events taking place on the world’s surface, but with the very axis on which it turns. His target is the accepted order of things, the belief system that underpins everything – namely, individualism.

Campbell’s play personifies various worldviews, but it’s tightest on the moral character of capitalism. That’s embodied by Kyle Soller’s Tom, a young American sell-out; once an aspiring novelist, now an advertising executive. Amongst his campaigns are a leading pharmaceutical company with an unethical record.

That’s what breaks up his relationship with Sophie (Hayley Atwell), an English post-grad heading into journalism, on 11 September 2001. The Faith Machine time-hops through their relationship – him growing increasing ensconced, her campaigning against global inequality. It keeps returning to Greece, to the home of Sophie’s headstrong father Edward (Ian McDiarmid), a bishop who has rejected the church for its stance on homosexuality. It’s here that Tom’s character reveals itself: sycophantic, side-swapping and ultimately, in Campbell’s most potent scene – in which the incontinent Edward is cleaned and changed by his daughter - inhumane.

The Faith Machine is a play of accumulation, all the better for revealing its purposes gradually and, even then, never head-on. As narrative, it suffers from arbitrary scene selection, but as meditation it’s concise without being cack-handed. Campbell steers clear of simplified taglines, but it becomes apparent that he believes God to be dead and society non-existent.

That’s not to say it’s a play without hope. ‘Nihilism is the victory of the status quo,’ says Edward, ‘so it’s time for the storytellers’. Instead it aspires to a new globalisation, in which every nation works together on equal footing. The final image, over-constructed though it is, has a Chilean academic, a Russian ex-prostitute from Ukraine, a Ugandan student, Tom and an English homosexual all co-operating. If that sounds unstomachably like a Benetton advert, Campbell’s softly-softly approach manages to dissolve cynicism. We must, according to Edward’s teaching, take it as metaphor.

Nor is Campbell naïve enough to presume that individual action will suffice. He nods to communism’s failure and the system’s drowning out of individual dissent. Rather The Faith Machine addresses its audience collectively. If that system is to change, Campbell argues, we must find an alternative together. If anything, he’s open to charges of optimism.

Jamie Lloyd’s production has both purity and elegance, largely due to Mark Thompson’s restrained design and some superb performances. Admittedly, Atwell plays Sophie a little too straight down the middle, achieving earnestness with bland conviction. McDiarmid, open to accusations of hamminess, is nonetheless captivating and clear. He finds both serenity and a roaring steadfastness in Edward, but softens it with a wry sense of mischief.

Soller is best of all. He is an actor so full of energy that he seems to vibrate. You’d think his veins pumped not blood but espresso. In the past, I’ve found him too much, but here he is perfectly cast to capture Tom’s nervy bluster. He seems a watch wound too tight, always in danger of popping a spring. Tom could so easily have been swish and set, another Ivy League success-story, but Soller lends him almost catatonic insecurity. Always the first to bottle, incapable of sincere connection or ease, he pierces tension by blurting reckless jokes or self-vindication.

Nevertheless, his best comes with the gradual decompression as Tom matures towards gentle epiphany. His calm, felt regret is halfway to absolution and makes alternative models seem possible. You leave Campbell’s play cleansed, challenged and committed.

Till 1 October 2011

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